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UM hosts opening ceremonies Wednesday at Adams Center

The Montana Special Olympics games mean a lot to Tawny Gray, an athlete ambassador.

"It's an inspiration for us. Most athletes, like me, never played sports in their lives. It's just an inspiration for us and it's a joy," she said.

Special athletes from throughout the state - 849 athletes and 423 coaches - will participate in the state's summer games Wednesday through Friday in Missoula.

"I think it's a chance for them to be successful, a chance to compete against their peers. It's not just competition; it's cooperation," said Theresa Cox, a co-director of the event along with Jeff Vandergrift.

Cox recalled a story about a race in which a runner fell down. The other runners stopped, went back to the racer who had fallen, then all the runners walked together to the finish line.

"It's about competition but it's also about compassion and cooperation," Cox said.

The athletes will be competing in golf, softball, tennis, bowling, gymnastics, power lifting, soccer, cycling, aquatics, track and field and bocce.

"I was actually thinking about writing a letter to the editor encouraging people to come and watch everything," Cox said. "It's so important for them to get that applause. They've worked so hard."

As an athlete ambassador, Gray talks to people and lets them know what Special Olympics is. "I hope people and athletes will get involved," she added.

Gray will compete in equestrian and bowling events. Her equestrian events - dressage and jumping - require two different horses.

The opening ceremonies are Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in the Adams Center's Dahlberg Arena.

Law enforcement officials from all corners of the state are putting together the Torch Run. On Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., runners will begin at Darby and end up at the Missoula Wal-Mart on Highway 93 where the torch will be passed on to Missoula County officials to carry into the opening ceremonies.

Entertainment includes MISMO Gymnastics, and the Hellgate Valkyries, the Big Sky High School band and a bagpipe band will participate in the parade of athletes. The Hellgate High Chevaliers will sing the national anthem.

Josh Anderson, a Special Olympics athlete and a Global Messenger, will welcome everyone. UM Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig will give the Officials' Oath to all the athletes. The Very Special Arts Choir also will perform.

The finale will include singers Rob Quist and Jack Gladstone, the Big Sky High School band and choir, the Hellgate Chevaliers, the Sentinel High School and Hellgate Key clubs, Missoula Children's Theatre and community volunteers performing "One Small Voice."

Gov. Judy Martz and Phyllis Washington, the honorary chairwoman, also will speak.

"It will be way cool. It will be phenomenal," Cox said.

Spectators may want to watch the track and field events at Dornblaser Field and the equestrian events at the Missoula Community Equestrian Park. Cycling events will be at the Riverside Trails and John H. Toole Park.

The aquatics events at the Missoula YMCA are in a small area that will make it difficult to watch, Cox said.

A big event that is especially important to the contestants is the dinner/dance Thursday evening, Cox said. The athletes will eat in area restaurants and then attend a carnival/dance at the university.

"The parents say it's like the kids' prom," Cox said.

The closing ceremonies at Dornblaser Field at noon on Friday will feature the Red Wave, a band of middle school students, playing a salute to the champions. Also on tap is "Operation Q-Ball," during which Bob Norbie, president of Montana's Special Olympics, will have his head shaved - if sellers of tickets raise $2,000 or more.

The event will conclude with the running of the torch, again by law enforcement people from Montana's police officers, sheriff's deputies, military police, Highway Patrol officers, prison guards and parole officers.

More than 500 volunteers are needed for many events ranging from the dinner/dance to opening and closing ceremonies to the actual events. Anyone interested in volunteering can call the Volunteer Hotline at 880-8955.

Special Olympics athletes also can compete in the national and world games. Several athletes from Montana will compete in the World Games in Dublin, Ireland, next month.

Reporter Donna Syvertson can be reached at 523-5361.

If you're interested

Jim Tunney, an NFL referee for 31 years, will speak at the "Breakfast with Champions" fund-raiser at 7 a.m. Wednesday in the University of Montana Center Ballroom. Missoula Special Olympic athlete Austin Hurd and his mother, Susan Kohler, also will be featured. Seating is limited. Tickets cost $100 each; corporate tables are available. Call 1-800-242-6876.

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